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Preseason Power Rankings No. 16: San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers AP

The 2013 Chargers earned the AFC’s final wild card berth on the final day of the regular season, and were they ever the definition of a wild card.

Of the Chargers’ seven losses a season ago, six were by one score or less. They were 5-2 against playoff clubs but a mere 4-5 against also-rans, including defeats to Oakland, Washington and Houston.

But in the end, San Diego got hot at the right time, winning four in a row to end the regular season. Then, in the postseason, the Chargers proved they belonged, upsetting the favored Bengals in Cincinnati and putting up a fight in a loss at Denver in the divisional round.

In all, it was a successful first season for Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who oversaw a club that always seemed to give itself a chance to win. And was it ever a splendid return to top form for quarterback Philip Rivers, who again looked like one of the best in his profession.

In some ways, the Chargers might have been ahead of schedule a season ago. The question is, what growth are they capable of this time around?

Strengths.

The Chargers’ offense is formidable. Rivers was fun to watch in 2013, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and ranking near the top of the NFL in passing yards gained per attempt (8.2). He was sacked 19 fewer times in 2013 than in the previous campaign (30 vs. 49), which speaks well of McCoy’s scheme and the work of the offensive line, which stepped up its play.

No team was better on third downs than the Chargers, and no quarterback may have been better than Rivers in such situations. Per STATS LLC, Rivers converted first downs on a league-high 49.4 percent of his passing attempts (77-of-156).

Rivers has multiple capable targets. Second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen starred as a rookie, hauling in 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards, four TDs) is a key security blanket for Rivers, as is tailback Danny Woodhead (76 catches, 605 yards, six TDs). Wide receivers Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal and tight end Ladarius Green will also get their shots to contribute, too.

The Chargers’ running game is no slouch, either. Lead back Ryan Mathews racked up 1,255 yards a season ago in a career-best campaign. Ex-Colt Donald Brown gives San Diego another starter-caliber rusher behind Mathews. In addition to his pass catching, Woodhead can chip in a few carries per game.

Finally, the Chargers’ defense appears stronger than a season ago. Free safety Eric Weedle is a standout, while ex-Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers could be just what the secondary needs. Defensive end Corey Liguet (12.5 combined sacks in the last two seasons), inside linebacker Donald Butler and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram are nice defensive foundation pieces for now and the future.

Weaknesses.

The Chargers allowed more yards per rush and per pass than any other AFC a team a season ago. Even if San Diego’s defense is better — and it should be, with Flowers arriving and Ingram and Dwight Freeney returning from injury-shortened campaigns — this isn’t a shutdown group by any stretch.

The play of the outside linebackers will be key for the Chargers. Liguet (5.5 sacks) paced the club in sacks in 2013, with fellow end Kendall Reyes finishing second with five sacks. For a club employing a 3-4 base scheme like San Diego, the outside ‘backers must generate some pressure off the edges.

On offense, the play of the Chargers’ line still bears some monitoring, even after the improvements made a season ago.

Changes.

The Chargers’ most important changes could come in the secondary, where Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett should bolster the cornerback corps. Those additions came after the club cut ties with corner Derek Cox, who struggled in his lone season in San Diego.

The Chargers have a new offensive coordinator, with Frank Reich replacing Ken Whisenhunt, who became the Titans’ head coach. San Diego has also made a change at backup quarterback, with Kellen Clemens (ex-St. Louis) signing on to replace Charlie Whitehurst, who followed Whisenhunt to Tennessee.

The Chargers’ RB depth chart is a little more crowded with the addition of Donald Brown, who led the Colts in rushing a season ago. He effectively replaces Ronnie Brown as one of the club’s top three backs.

Camp battles.

Several positions bear watching:

—   Right guard: Incumbent Jeromey Clary comes off shoulder and hip surgery; can third-round pick Chris Watt push him for the job?

—   Cornerback: Flowers, Verrett and holdovers Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall are the top four options at the position. Flowers seems likely to garner a major role, but how quickly will Verrett adjust to the NFL game?

—   Running back: How will the reps be split between Mathews, Woodhead and Brown?

—   Nose tackle: Sean Lissemore, Ryan Carrethers and Kwame Geathers are among the options. Cam Thomas, one of the regulars at the position a season ago, signed with Pittsburgh.

—   Outside linebacker: There could be some healthy competition here, with Ingram, Freeney, Larry English, Jarret Johnson, Thomas Keiser and rookie Jeremiah Attaochu all in the mix for work.

Prospects.

The Chargers’ schedule is both inviting and challenging, with the biggest tests right out of the gate and down the stretch.

The Chargers begin with a pair of challenging out-of-conference games at Arizona and vs. Seattle. A 0-2 start is quite possible, given the degree of difficulty of those matchups.

Then comes a five-game run that could ultimately make or break the Chargers’ season. The next five opponents — the Bills (away), Jets (home), Jaguars (home), Raiders (away) and Chiefs (home) — are all conference opponents ranked behind San Diego in PFT’s preseason power rankings. Here’s a chance for the Chargers to stack up some important AFC wins — and they must do so.

Similarly, the Chargers need to make hay in the early part of November. They begin the month at Miami (Nov. 2), then take their bye. Then comes home games vs. Oakland (Nov. 16) and St. Louis (Nov. 23). The Chargers may have to sweep this three-game stretch, considering their next five games — their final of the campaign — are at Baltimore, home vs. New England, home vs. Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

In all, the schedule seems a perfect test for the Chargers. If their offense remains potent and efficient, and if their defense has improved, the Chargers could get rolling, and they could prove a challenging matchup for anyone, even those strong outfits they face in the final weeks.

The Chargers didn’t blink in tough situations a season ago, which makes them all the more intriguing in 2014. But can they move forward? It probably comes down to whether they can get a few more stops on “D.” They are going to score their share of points.

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Lions not optimistic about Suh deal

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Getty Images

When the Lions passed on Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald with the 10th overall pick in the draft for yet another offensive weapon, their intention to keep defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh became even more obvious — especially since they decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on defensive tackle Nick Fairley in order to give him incentive to play harder this year (until he gets paid and can underachieve again).  But with the season approaching, the Lions have yet to extend Suh’s rookie contract.

Per Chris Mortensen of ESPN, the Lions aren’t optimistic that they’ll get Suh re-signed.  The problem ultimately flows from his $22.4 million cap number, which gives Suh the hammer of a 2015 franchise tag in the amount of $26.88 million.  Which makes it hard to sign him to a long-term deal that pays out market value, especially with the market not exactly soaring at the defensive tackle position.

That cap number has been artificially increased by efforts to create cap space that included restructuring Suh’s contract and loading more dollars into 2014.  Indeed, Suh will earn only (only?) $12 million in 2014.  But good luck getting Suh, agent Jimmy Sexton, and/or marketing agent Jay-Z to negotiate the first year of a long-term extension based on the lower number.

It all points to Suh finishing his rookie contract, not being tagged, entering the mini-tampering period and finding out what other teams would pay, and either taking the Lions’ offer or signing elsewhere, for the same money or more (or possibly less, if other factors come into play).

Regardless, it quite possibly will be Suh’s last year in Detroit, thanks in part to the efforts of the team to do business while having three top-two picks from the last four years of the windfall system that existed before the rookie wage scale.  They’ve extended two of them (Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford), and it looks like the third one will be walking away.

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Rice caught a break on his one-game fine

Rice AP

For the many who believe Commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t go nearly far enough by suspending Ravens running back Ray Rice only two games for knocking out the woman who would later become his wife, Rice got another piece of favorable treatment.

Via ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, the one-game fine attached to the two-game suspension will be calculated based on Rice’s 2013 base salary of $1 million, not his 2014 base salary of $4 million — even though the incident happened in 2014 and the suspension was imposed in 2014.

It reduces the fine from $235,529 to $58,823, a savings to Rice of $176,706.

That wrinkle wasn’t mentioned in the press release announcing the punishment, creating the reasonable impression that the money was coming from 2014:  “[H]e will be suspended without pay for the first two 2014 regular season games and fined an additional game check.”

Meanwhile, some have defended the league’s wrist-slap for Rice’s chin-punch by pointing to other language from the release:  “In May, Rice resolved the charges by entering into a pretrial intervention program. Under this program, he will not be prosecuted and is not required to serve jail time or pay any fine. After one year, the charges will be expunged and will not be part of Rice’s record.”

If the punishment from the league was truly intended to simulate the punishment imposed by the criminal justice system, why was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended four games for a civil lawsuit in 2009 and allegations that never culminated in an arrest in 2010?  The obvious explanation is that the NFL did its own investigation and concluded that unacceptable behavior occurred, and that Roethlisberger had become a repeat offender.  Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that the contents of the still-unleaked video of Rice punching the woman who became his wife supports the notion that Janay had crossed the line repeatedly before Ray reacted.

Maybe it’s time for that video to be released, since it happened in a public place and has become a matter of public concern.

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David Tyree says he’d support a gay player on the Giants

david-tyree-super-bowl-catch Getty Images

When the Giants hired former receiver David Tyree as their new director of player development, it resulted in some criticism because Tyree has a history of making anti-gay comments. But Tyree says that he would be supportive of gay players on the Giants.

Wade Davis, an openly gay former NFL player, writes at TheMMQB.com that Tyree assured him that an openly gay player on the Giants would be welcomed.

“I would absolutely support any player on the Giants who identified as gay, in any way I could,” Tyree said. “And I will continue to stay in touch with Wade to ensure I am aware of the right ways to do that.”

Tyree is best remembered for his “helmet catch” in Super Bowl XLII. He has previously said that he would give up that catch and that Super Bowl to prevent gay marriage. Tyree hasn’t specifically disavowed those views, but he does recognize that accepting all gay players — including gay players — is a requirement of his job.

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Gerald McCoy: People are about to see how good Josh McCown is

Josh McCown AP

As training camps spring to life across the NFL, hope springs eternal in a league defined by its parity.

Praise of players and teammates also comes easily as everyone is “way better than last year,” “ready to take a step forward” or “poised for big things this season.”

One such player getting glowing reviews from teammates is Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown.

According to Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, defensive end Gerald McCoy believes the league isn’t giving McCown enough credit for his ability.

“I don’t know how much people really know how good Josh McCown is,” McCoy said. “I think a lot of people are about to see how good he really is.”

“He’s (35), but with the amount of time he’s played, he’s 28. His mental capacity is as old as it gets. He’s been around for a while. His leadership ability is incredible, and he’s going to lead this team.”

McCown is the favorite to start for the Buccaneers this season. Entering his 12th season in the NFL, it would be only McCown’s second opportunity as a full-time starter. He also started 13 games for the Arizona Cardinals in 2004.

However, McCown parlayed a strong season in relief of Jay Cutler in Chicago into a starting job with the Buccaneers. McCown appeared in eight games with five starts for the Bears last year. He completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,829 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception.

While it helps having arguably the best receiver tandem in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, McCown took full advantage of the opportunity and earned his chance in Tampa Bay. With Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins among the targets McCoy will have to throw too, the league should find out if McCown can live up to the praise this season.

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Report: Josh Gordon went to rehab after latest arrest

Cleveland Browns v New York Jets Getty Images

It’s been a tumultuous offseason for Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon that has seen him suspended (pending an Aug. 1 appeal) for another substance-abuse policy violation, ticketed for speeding and arrested for a DUI charge.

However, Gordon has apparently taken his latest infraction more seriously and has begun to seek help for his string of problems.

According to Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports, Gordon checked into a rehab facility following his DUI arrest in North Carolina earlier this month. Gordon is still expected to report to training camp with the Browns on Friday and the team currently has no intention of releasing him.

The move to attend rehab won’t do anything to help him avoid suspension. It likely won’t help him avoid further possible punishment stemming from the DUI arrest either. But it may be the first step toward Gordon getting his life in order to be able to return to football at some point in the future.

Or Gordon won’t learn from his mistakes and he’ll follow in Tanard Jackson’s footsteps instead. No matter what choice Gordon makes, the decision is up to him. Checking into rehab and admitting he has a problem is a good first step.

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Seahawks, Lynch have been talking new deal for four months

Lynch AP

Running back Marshawn Lynch wants a new deal from the Seahawks.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, there’s a “zero percent chance” he’ll show up for the start of training camp without a contract that replaces the final two seasons of his four-year, $30 million contract.

Talks have been occurring on and off, according to the source, for four months.  The Seahawks have resisted due to concerns that giving a player a new contract with two years left on his current agreement would set a bad precedent.

If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how rewarding the offensive player most critical to the team’s success in the last two years would set a bad precedent.  If, moving forward, other players with two years left on a contract want new deals because Marshawn Lynch got one, the easy answer is, “You’re not Marshawn Lynch.”

Besides, if Lynch waits until he has one year left on his contract, he may have far less value to the team than he does right now.  Indeed, the Seahawks may decide by next year to move on to someone else at tailback.

And so Lynch won’t be moving in to camp until he gets a new deal.  Given his personality and temperament, there’s a chance he’ll stay away as long as it takes, even if it never happens.

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Report: Bon Jovi’s ownership group has explored building Toronto stadium

Bon Jovi Getty Images

While the potential Bills ownership group fronted by Jon Bon Jovi may currently be saying all the right things about keeping the team in Buffalo, Bon Jovi and company reportedly have explored the possibility of moving the team to Toronto.

According to the Associated Press, the Bon Jovi group has conducted a feasibility study regarding the construction of a stadium in the Toronto area.  The study identified at least three potential sites.

Andy Bergmann, who oversees the group’s stadium plan, denied that any feasibility study has been conducted.

“We have undertaken engineering and design studies,” Bergmann told the AP via email.  “All of our work has been about a generic site and whether it was more rural or urban. We are aware of potential sites in the western NY and southern Ontario region, and are in fact meeting with two Buffalo area developers next week.”

Despite reports that the Bon Jovi group wouldn’t move the team, many aren’t buying it — including Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

“It is my personal opinion that any bid associated with the Toronto group has a long-term interest in moving the team to Toronto,” Poloncarz told the AP.

Any group that would move the team can’t say it would move the team until the time comes to actually move the team, for a variety of reasons.  So none of the groups looking to buy the team will admit they want to move the team, and the question then becomes whether anyone believes the statements of intention to remain in Buffalo.

Few Bills fans believe that Bon Jovi would keep the team in Buffalo.  The latest report from the AP will do nothing to change the minds of those who are convinced that on a steel horse the franchise will ride to Toronto.

I knew if I babbled long enough I’d eventually come up with a way to force a Bon Jovi song reference into this thing.

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Seahawks to sign David Gilreath, C.J. Davis

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

Following the retirement of Sidney Rice and a handful of roster moves earlier on Thursday, the Seattle Seahawks had two open roster spots ahead of the start of training camp on Friday morning.

The Seahawks have apparently found the two players that will fill those vacancies prior to camp getting underway.

According to his agent, Neil Schwartz, the Seahawks have agreed to terms with guard C.J. Davis. In addition, the team has signed receiver David Gilreath to a one-year deal, per Mike Garafolo of FOXSports.com.

Davis appeared in seven games for the Carolina Panthers in 2010, and seven games for the Denver Broncos in 2012.

Gilreath has been an NFL vagabond during his previous three seasons. He has played for seven teams – the Oakland Raiders being the most recent pit stop. The Seahawks will be his eighth team.

Gilreath appeared in three games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012 with one carry for seven yards.

The additions will get the Seahawks to their roster limit of 90 players.

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Steelers waive LB Kion Wilson, sign rookie CB Lew Toler

Pittsburgh Steelers helmets AP

The Steelers have signed undrafted rookie cornerback Lew Toler and waived veteran inside linebacker Kion Wilson. The roster moves were disclosed in the NFL’s Thursday transactions.

Wilson, 27, appeared in seven games for Pittsburgh in 2013, notching 12 tackles. He started at left inside linebacker in Weeks Two and Three before being replaced by Vince Williams.

Toler (5-11, 189) played collegiately at Western Michigan and Rutgers, recording 180 tackles and picking off eight passes in 43 games (41 starts). The 23-year-old Toler is one of nine cornerbacks on the Steelers’ roster.

The Steelers begin training camp on Friday.

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Seahawks don’t seem to be inclined to give Lynch a raise

Lynch AP

It was quite the coincidence, or perhaps not a coincidence at all, that Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch called former teammate Michael Robinson while Robinson was spending several hours on the air at NFL Network and told Robinson that Lynch plans to hold out.

Lynch has been making noise for weeks about wanting a new deal, but he has yet to take concrete action toward that end.  He showed up for a mandatory minicamp amid reports he wouldn’t.  Now, Lynch potentially is throwing a Hail Mary pass in the hopes the Seahawks will blink.

It would be a surprise if they do.  As the Seahawks see it, Lynch has completed half of a four-year, $30 million contract.  He has two years left, and by the time those two years have expired, if not sooner, the team may begin to devote a sizable chunk of Lynch’s touches to Christine Michael or Robert Turbin.

Lynch knows that, given his age (28) and the hits he has absorbed, now is the time to get one last payday.  By next year or the year after, he’ll be at best among the smattering of veterans fetching $3.5 million annually, at best, on the open market.

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Saints host is a Parcells impersonator

Parcells Getty Images

Two years ago, Hall of Famer Bill Parcells nearly served as the interim head coach for the Saints.  In 2014, Parcells will be at Saints training camp.

Sort of.

West Virginia coal baron Jim Justice, the billionaire who owns The Greenbrier, is a Parcells doppleganger.  And Justice has been known to have some fun with it.

“I’ve been in airports and people walk up and say, ‘Coach Parcells, can I have your autograph?‘” Justice told Tom Corbett of USA Today.  “And I say, ‘Oh, sure.’  And I sign, ‘Best wishes, Bill Parcells’ — because it’s the happiest they can be.  [Parcells] is a lot better looking guy than I am.”

Justice said he plunked down $30 million of his own money to build a practice facility for the Saints.

“The Saints are paying for their rooms and their meals,” Justice said.  “Basically, that’s it. The Saints didn’t put money in this deal.”

It’s a bit surprising the Saints are even doing that, given the potential economic impact on a resort like The Greenbrier, both during camp and after.  Other resorts could be tempted to do the same thing in the future, luring an NFL team to town for an old-school camp experience that either saves the team a lot of money, or possibly puts some extra money into the team’s coffers.

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Tony Romo: You’ll see the best version of me in the next 4-5 years

tonyromo AP

A 34-year-old coming off back surgery isn’t exactly the perfect description of an athlete entering his prime. But that’s what Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo says he is.

Romo told reporters today that he thinks he’s going to be better than ever this year, and for a few more years to come.

“I feel personally like I’ve just started to come into the player that I wanted to be six, seven years ago,” Romo said, via the Star-Telegram. “I think over the course of the next four or five years, you’ll see the best version of me that I’ve had throughout my career. That’s for a lot of different reasons, but I really believe that. I believe that will show as we go forward, so I’m excited about that.”

Romo had a strong season statistically last year, with 31 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions in 15 games. Given the sorry state of the Cowboys’ defense, Romo may have to be even better than that this year if the Cowboys are going to break their streak of three straight 8-8 seasons and reach the playoffs.

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Peyton disappointed fans can’t attend Broncos camp

peyton AP

The Broncos have closed training camp to fans this year because of construction at the team facilities, and Peyton Manning says that makes this year’s camp different.

“As great as these facilities are going to be, the disappointing thing is that just due to the safety issues we couldn’t have fans here, and I’m disappointed in it – it was not the same today,” Manning told Tom Jackson on ESPN.

Manning said he and his teammates have always enjoyed hearing the fans cheering them on at practice, and this year that won’t be the case.

“You need fans out here in training camp. The energy, you get into the padded practices, those third and fourth padded practices, just a little shout out from the fans . . . it makes a difference and I missed it today,” Manning said. “I know we’re really going to miss it as these training camp practices go on. I just want them to know it will be missed and it was an unavoidable situation.”

The Broncos are planning some open practices at Mile High, but that’s not the same as the day-in, day-out close contact with fans that teams have when they open up training camp.

“We’ve got a couple practices at the stadium. Hopefully we’ll have a great turnout there,” Manning said. “But fans, to me, are a part of training camp, and this will be different this year, and it’s sad for me. Especially these Broncos fans, I know these are some loyal fans, I know fans that have been planning vacations around training camp. I’ve seen them for the past two years and [John] Elway said they’ve been here since he’s been playing so that tells you the kinds of fans we’re playing for and we’re sorry not to see them this year.”

The Broncos say this year’s construction will improve the facilities and make future training camps a better experience for fans. In Manning’s view, that will also make training camp a better experience for players.

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Seahawks waive two players, sign WR Morrell Presley

Paul Richardson AP

The Seahawks signed rookie wide receiver Morrell Presley and waived second-year offensive guard Jared Smith and rookie tight end Chase Dixon on Thursday, according to the NFL’s transactions.

Presley (6-4, 225) tried out for Seattle in the spring. He played at UCLA (2009-2010) and California (Pa.) (2012). As PFT’s Curtis Crabtree noted, Presley — whose addition was first reported yesterday — adds a little more size to the club’s receiving corps after the retirement of Sidney Rice.

Smith, a seventh-round pick of Seattle in 2013, was waived/injured. According to the club’s website, Smith sustained a leg injury last year.

Dixon is an undrafted free agent out of Central Arkansas.

The roster moves leave the Seahawks with 88 players, leaving them two open roster spots in case they wanted to, you know, add another running back.

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Marshawn Lynch will be holding out

Marshawn Lynch AP

The Seahawks managed to coax running back Marshawn Lynch to show up for a mandatory minicamp amid concerns he would hold out.  Now, Lynch won’t be showing up for training camp.

Former teammate Michael Robinson, who’s currently working for NFL Network, said on the air moments ago that Lynch said he’ll hold out.

The move exposes Lynch to $30,000 per day in fines, along with (after five days) partial forfeiture of his $6 million signing bonus.

In 2012, Lynch signed a four-year, $30 million contract.  He’s due to earn $5.5 million in 2014, with a cap number of $7 million.

The move comes a day after the Chiefs bumped the 2014 pay of Jamaal Charles from $3.9 million to $8.3 million, via a two-year extension that puts him under contract for four years, $28 million.

Lynch’s holdout represents the first significant negative development for the defending Super Bowl champions, who gave long-term contracts in the offseason to safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman.

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